Information, Exformation, & The Chess User Experience

Information and context is critical to user experience — but it’s a careful balance.

This year’s Information Architecture Conference is starting next week, and this is the first year I get to attend. As a new information architect, I had applied and received an equity scholarship to attend the conference this year. Exciting! I was watching last year’s keynote address, where speaker Cassini Nazir did a talk called “Architecting Exformation: Design for Curious Minds.” My first thought was, “what is exformation?” as I’m sure some of you are wondering the same thing.

Information and exformation

As information architects, we look at how information is structured, we anticipate how information can be found online. Let’s look at an example together — say that we are on the Lichess home page, an open source chess website. There’s a couple of different options to play front and center in the 12 squares. It’s up to the user to decide what kind of time controls they want (classical, rapid, blitz, or bullet games).

If a user just wants to see what’s going on with a tournament, then they can look below the boxes to see the leaderboard and the tournament winners.

The home page of Lichess.org
Lichess.org’s home page.

The walkthrough we just did, we are looking at the user experience and finding information. A user on Lichess is looking to play, and they’ve displayed that prominently. You look up a question on google — that is searching for information, you have some idea of what you’re searching for.

Then what is exformation?

I know it sounds like it’s made up, but it’s really a term. I liked this definition from the exformation Wikipedia page — “exformation is everything we do not actually say but have in our heads when, or before, we say anything at all — whereas information is the measurable, demonstrable utterance we actually come out with.”

Can you put this in English, please?

Information and exformation work together to give a full picture without having to repeat context. We’re really looking at are unwritten or unspoken context clues that build our knowledge base. As a user online, we use this all the time.

Think about the ubiquitous mobile navigation symbol. How do we explain that to someone who doesn’t know what the three bars mean? We know it means “tap here for more options”. But the symbol itself is not necessarily intuitive to that. It’s because the navigation symbol has become an expectation of our online world — it’s an interaction pattern.

An image of the hamburger navigation button
The hamburger navigation button

There was a point in Cassini’s keynote that stood out to me as he was explaining what exformation. He used this quote by designer Kenya Hara about exformation:

A screenshot from the keynote talk about exformation.

This was a turning point moment for me when I watched the keynote. Chess as a sport seems like a highly complex game from the outset.

It’s not that you have to be a genius to play it, it’s that there’s a little bit of information in terms of the objective (capture the king), where the pieces move on the board, and a whole lot of exformation (some example components: the labeling system of the board, tactics, strategy, the multitude of potential plays). Taking in both information and exformation, it is the core of the user experience of chess.

How information and exformation is understood within the chess user experience

When the general public thinks about chess, they think of chess elites, champions. Professional chess players think about how to use chess information and exformation to their advantage. That’s what I think makes watching high level tournaments very interesting, they make plays that the viewers wouldn’t necessarily think of. From the outside, in the public sphere, that can be intimidating because the ratio of information to exformation is quite large.

As a new user experience designer, and someone new to chess, “stimulating curiosity and interest” from the quote above still rang in my head. Chess had an explosion of interest lately from the pandemic lockdown, and the Netflix show, “Queen’s Gambit.” These two things lead to a chess set shortage, which is wild for a small industry.

I’ve blogged about how “Queen’s Gambit” got me into chess as someone who never gave it much of a thought prior. But in this context of how we understand user experience, the quote from Kenya Hara gave me a new interpretation of why the show was so powerful for viewers to pick up the game on their own.

A still from Netflix’s “Queen’s Gambit.”
Anya Taylor-Joy is Beth Harmon in “Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix.

The show revolves around chess prodigy Beth Harmon’s relationship with chess. But really, what drew us in as viewers is Beth, she is our guide through the world of competitive chess in the 1960s. Her struggles and achievements are what helps the viewers understand the exformation of chess, because we have been given a glimpse into the unspoken context of the game dynamics. The viewer learned it alongside Beth. By the end of the show, chess doesn’t seem as intimidating because we have more context to understand the mechanics of the game.

Her story was powerful enough to encourage online chess playing, and there’s no signs of it slowing down across the globe. There is especially an increase in female players, like me. The spike of women’s interest in chess has helped distribute the gender division in a field that has historically been male dominated. It is still male dominated, but slightly less so. It will be interesting to see what the gender distribution will look like within a year of the show being out.

Conclusion

In this case, understanding the information within the context of the unspoken exformation provides value. As designers, we think about the user experience, but something that Cassini highlighted is that it is just as important to know how to utilize the ratio of information to exformation to bring in new users. If there’s not enough context, it might be too much of a stretch for a new user to understand what they need to do. If it’s too much exformation, then they’ll get overwhelmed.

As a new information architect, and equity scholar for Information Architecture Conference, if this is what last year’s keynote was like, I’m really excited for this year. If you’re interested in signing up, here’s the link.

Recommended Viewing:

IAC20 Keynote: Architecting Exformation: Design for Curious Minds by Cassini Nazir.

Jessi is a junior UX Designer at DIA Design Guild. She lives in Los Angeles and can be found on twitter @jessishakarian.